The little dark-haired girl with the bright green eyes entered the home office where both adults were staring at computer screens or talking on a phone. Everleigh rarely interrupted them when they were working, even though they never minded her. They loved their little princess and used every opportunity to show her, she knew that and it was mutual. She could not be closer with her parents, which is why instinctively she respected them and their work schedule. But not today. This was important. To her.
Just as the girl had opened her mouth to address the pretty blonde woman, the adult’s phone rang and she answered on the second ring, oblivious to the little girl.
The little girl’s mouth shut as she now looked at the man instead, his hair the same near black shade as the little girl’s, just like the shade of their eyes was an exact match of the same unusual light green. The resemblance was undeniable. Her father.
She walked over to him.
“Hi daddy…” she said.
“Hi pumpkin. Done with your dollies already?” he kissed her forehead, smiling lovingly.
“Yeah … they need to rest now … Umm … daddy?” Everleigh was hesitant about how to phrase her question.
“Yes, sweetie?” the young man glanced at the girl again, smiled lovingly, then dedicated his attention to the new email that was just announced by a ding.
“Yesterday I met a new friend … a boy…”
“That’s nice, honey.” It was not unusual for Everleigh to make new friends. Happened near daily.
“He is bigger than me …” that was also not too unusual as she was delicate like the little ballerina she was. Three evenings a week, since she was 3.
“Uh huh…” the man wrinkled his forehead and frowned at what he was reading.
“Daddy? How do you know if a person is bad?”
“What do you mean, baby?” this diverted his attention back at his daughter.
“Like when other people say not to play with someone because they are bad, but you don’t agree… who is right then?”
“Depends. What do they mean by ‘bad’?”
“I don’t know, daddy.” Everleigh shrugged her small, narrow shoulders, then locked her big light green eyes – the same shade as her daddy’s – on him again.
“Evey, bad can be a matter of angle. A rule of thumb is that words are cheap, but a person’s actions usually are the best indicator of what they are really like. If you think that boy is nice, and he is nice to you, but people say they are are not based on his heritage or appearance, it may not mean a thing. They may just be wrong. It’s called prejudice.” Everett tried his interpretation of the apparent problem.
The little girl considered the words, nodding to herself, while her father was already distracted by what her mother now told him about the call she had been on and both of them now dialed again and spoke into the cell phone, so the little girl left the room.
Sitting on her bed she pondered her daddy’s words.
Her parents were usually very involved and always made time for her, but lately there had been a spike at work and they had to deal with that. Everleigh knew that. It was just a very strange time of change for her too. She would be starting school in a few weeks. While she did not know what that would be like, she knew that a lot of things would change for everybody.
She was excited, only a little bit nervous, mostly because she already knew several kids there: her cousins and friends from ballet class and playgrounds.
Everleigh, or Evey as she was often nicknamed, liked learning things and was smart. She wanted to be an architect one day, like her daddy, and work in his company with him and her mom.
She suddenly smiled as if she had an idea, then ran downstairs, grabbed a paper bag and threw some cookies and a sandwich into it along with an apple, then ran back upstairs.
“Mommy, daddy, can I go to the park to play?” she asked slightly out of breath.
“OK, honey, but only until 5, we’ll have dinner then. And no further than the park.” he mother smiled at her.
“Yes mommy.” she kissed her parents, ran down the stairs and down the long windy road to the park by the harbor, which her parents could overlook from their home office. Brindleton Bay was a very safe place with true small town charm nearly everybody knew everybody and it was customary to watch out for each other, especially children. Chances were that some of her cousins would be there too, probably with a parent or grandparent. Katie smiled. She loved their little daughter so much and was happy. Happy to know that Everett was a good man, the love of her life and both would assure that Everleigh would never have to suffer heartbreak like she had when her family crumbled. The Camerons were tight knit and close. The grandparents were very involved, just like aunts and uncles. Katie never heard or saw her own uncle unless he needed something.
Everleigh had meanwhile reached the park, searching for her new friend, but he was not there. Disappointed she turned around, her long, dark braids flying, when her eyes met another pair.
“What are YOU looking at?!” the boy, a few years older than Everleigh, barked at her rudely and walked towards her, stopping an arm length in front of her. She had never seen him here before. He looked unkempt and had been in a fight, as he had a big gash on his face. And no band-aid. When she fell, mommy or daddy would ALWAYS put a magical band-aid on that would take away the pain.
“Nothing…?” she was not used to someone being rude to her. She had grown up very sheltered and was never alone anywhere. Odd than none of her cousins or friends where here on a beautiful afternoon like this one. Nobody was here. Maybe the rude boy had run them off. Maybe she should run home too?
“Are you asking me or telling me?” the boy asked, still rude.
“No .. umm … I mean I don’t know … ” she shook her head to underline her words.
“You got any money?”
“No.” she shook her head. Yes, she should leave, but he blocked her path.
“Are you sure?” the boy came towards Everleigh, she stepped backwards. He scared her.
He closed in on her, grabbed her, roughly. She dropped the paper bag with the sandwich, cookies and fruit.
“No!” Everleigh was very scared now, her voice higher pitched and with fear ringing in the tone. The boy let go immediately, stepping back as if startled and just stared at her, as she looked up at him, a frightened expression in her big, light green eyes, tears now welling up while some were rolling down her cheeks.
“Please don’t cry, little girl. I … I .. am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you…” the boy looked truly guilty and regretful. His tone and demeanor had changed completely.
The boy picked up the paper bag Everleigh had dropped and looked inside, then greedily wolfed down the cookies.
Everleigh’s tears seized after one big sniffle.
“Why are you so mean to someone you do not even know? And those weren’t for you …”
The boy shuffled his feet, staring at them, while shrugging, then looked up, still chewing
“You got a name?” he asked while unwrapping and biting into the sandwich big, greedy bites like a starving dog would bite into a juicy steak.
“Everleigh Rose Cameron. And you?”
The boy laughed, shaking his head, while wiping his mouth then starting to devour the last item from the bag, an apple.
“You look like a doll and your name matches.” he spoke with his mouth full.
“Huh?” she made surprised.
She had never seen anybody behave like that boy. At least not in real life. Maybe in a movie. And he was eating the food she had intended for her new friend, but she didn’t dare stop him.
“Evey – is that boy bothering you?” Cameron Ferrer, Everleigh’s cousin came running, his sister Isabelle in tow – behind them the children’s grandmother Leonie. Cameron was the oldest of all the cousins and very protective of the younger kids. He was usually quiet like his father, but in no way shy. More like a silent observer until he had something to say.
“Umm .. no .. I think …. It’s okay Cam. Hi Belle!”
Isabelle waved at her as the strange boy hissed at Cameron.
“What do YOU want?!” the strange boy’s voice and stance towards Cameron was tense and threatening.
“I want you to leave Evey alone. Go away!” Cameron was not going to back down.
“Make me!” the other boy challenged, his chin raised, eyes narrowed. Cameron’s demeanor matched that of the stranger.
“Boys stop!” Leonie came into view, the grandmother of Cameron, Isabelle and Everleigh.
The strange boy turned on his heels and ran away.
“No, wait come back, please … umm whatever your name is …” Everleigh ran after him, but Leonie called her back.
“Let him go baby. He seemed like a little troublemaker.” Leonie was the kindest person, but was very protective of her family. She was glad she did not have to break up two boys fighting. That was more something for Liam, her husband, once a rambunctious kid himself.
“OK, grandma.” Everleigh never argued with grown ups, but regretted that the boy was gone. Somehow there was something about him that intrigued her. Even though he probably really was bad. Whatever that really meant. But he was definitely not nice, so much was certain.
The kids played until it was time to go home. Leonie delivered Everleigh to her parents and after a quick coffee went to take Cameron and Isabelle home to their parents.
Dinner was the same routine as every day, afterwards everybody helped clear the table and settled for a family-friendly movie, after which both parents tucked Everleigh in. Everett stuck around and read Everleigh a goodnight story, despite her protests that she was too big for that now. He smiled and still pulled out her favorite book. He knew his little girl and her weaknesses and she ended up falling asleep to her daddy’s soothing voice, just like every night for as long as she could remember. She knew her cousins lives were similar to hers, warmness, routines, safety, love, and to her, this was what life was like for everyone. Always. Even for the mean boy from the playground. And that other new friend she had hoped to see again, but who didn’t come. A barely six year old girl’s world is still small enough for this to be real.
It was dark now, deep night, and Everleigh woke up to go to the restroom which was across the hall from her room. On her way back she had a strange feeling and something told her to look out the window by her bed in her room. There she saw him. That other little boy. The one she asked her parents about.
She knocked against the glass and he looked up at her, his eyes seemed strangely illuminated from within, but it was probably the moonlight. She waved, wondering if he could see her, as he waved back. Everleigh ran downstairs.
“You came back!” she told the boy excitedly. This was the boy she had looked for earlier.
“I said I would.” he replied quietly.
“How did you know where I live?”
“Oh – I know a lot of things …” the boy said mysteriously and somehow it did not allow any further questioning.
“You didn’t tell me your name last time.” Everleigh pouted playfully.
“You did not tell me yours either.” a barely there smile turned the corners of his mouth upward.
“I am Everleigh Rose Cameron.” she said.
“Everleigh Rose? Is that what people call you?”
“No, most just call me Evey. And you?”
“I am Heath. Heath Grainger. No middle name.”
“Nice to meet you Heath. Are your parents not worried that you are outside in the dark all alone? Aren’t you afraid?” Everleigh shivered at the cold breeze under the starlit skies, only illuminated by the street lights.
The little boy chuckled, even though Everleigh did not see what was funny, when he stopped and shook his head.
“No. I am not afraid of the dark. I thrive in it. And my parents know I am out and do not mind. Or worry. They don’t have to.” he gave her a strange look, a faint smile on his lips.
“Strange. My parents would not let me outside alone in the dark.”
“You ARE outside in the dark.” the boy quietly stated the obvious, cracking a tiny smile.
“Well, yeah, I guess…” Evey looked down at the ground for a second.
“You weren’t at the playground today…” she told him.
“I never said we would meet there again. If we meet it will have to be after dark from now on.”
“I am … I have a condition. The sun, it hurts me. My skin.”
“Oh, I heard about that on TV, and another kid that had to live in a bubble because of something with his skin, but mommy turned it off saying that kind of stuff was not good for me to see. Do you want to come inside? I have food. Pasta. It’s yummy!”
“No thank you. I am not hungry.”
“Good. You know, I brought you a sandwich and cookies to the playground earlier today, but … some other boy took it from me… a mean boy.”
The little boy, unlike any other kids Everleigh knew was always eerily calm and very little animated, but now there was a strange glow in his eyes as they narrowed.
“Mean boy? He took it from you? Did he hurt you?!” his tone was not as soft and gentle as it usually was.
“No not really … my cousin came and helped me.”
“Good.” he seemed to relax.
“You sure you do not want to come inside. It’s cold out and we have food … cookies! Want one?”
“I am not cold. I am never cold. And why do you keep trying to give me food?” He rarely smiled, but his eyes sparkly and his voice sounded amused.
“Last time you ran off saying you were hungry … I don’t want you to run off again … we have lots and lots of food.”
“Oh. I am not hungry. Not tonight. I already … filled my need.” his eyes were soft. So different.
“Do you want to come inside? I have new furniture for my doll house, it is awesome!”
“No, I better not.” his smiled faded, he stiffened “someone is coming.”
“What?” Everleigh said, turning around noticing the hall lights were on and the front porch light turned on now too, second before her father appeared in the door.
“Evey! What are you doing out here, baby doll!?” Everleigh winced, startled, turned, watching him come running towards her now.
“He came back! Daddy meet … oh!” when she turned to look at Heath, he was no longer there.
“Meet whom, baby?” Everett had scooped his daughter up into his arms, while she was frantically looking around herself. But no sign of Heath.
“He was just here, daddy!”
“Who, sweetie?” Everett looked around as he shut the door.
“Who is Heath.”
“The little boy I was just talking to… the one I told you about.”
Everett’s eyes widened as he looked at an empty driveway through the window, then looked at his daughter, worried.
“How old is that Heath?”
“I don’t know daddy, I didn’t ask. Like me, I think.”
“Why would he not be in bed, where all little boys and girls should be at this hour? Where we put you now before you freeze to death! What were you thinking running out in the cold and dark in your nightgown, baby!?” he held her tighter, rubbing her back, arms and legs to warm his little daughter, then ended up tickling her making her forget all about that Heath.
That entire situation was creepy at best. Some form of child neglect or abuse if a little boy was out at this time of night. Maybe the boy was homeless. Nights were still cold, not fit for a little kid. He’d have to monitor that. But then again, there was nobody and their driveway was designed to not allow for intruders from anywhere but the long windy driveway itself, up a long hill, impossible to get up or down without being seen. Something did not add up here. There could not have been a boy and disappear this fast.
He carried Everleigh upstairs, tucked her into bed, then went to bed himself but laid awake for hours.
This worried him.
When he told Katie about this, they decided to monitor her behavior, and called Everleigh’s pediatrician, who assured them that imaginary friends were not unheard of in children about to start school as a manner of dealing with the anxiety of the unknown.
His beautiful, brilliant child with an imaginary friend? Everett did not like that idea. Not one bit.
Luckily work got busy and Everett forgot about the incident. Everleigh had been enrolled in ballet since she was three, along with her two cousins Isabelle and Cailean. All girls loved it, even though their teacher, Madame Dubois somehow came across as stiffly rude and unpersonable. But the girls even practiced their poses whenever they all got together, even tried to teach the boys – or the parents and grandparents, which always ended in belly laughs.
Maybe that imaginary friend had been a phase that was over now.
Cameron, the oldest of the children, already went to school, all the other cousins would start together. Soon.
Way too soon if you asked Everett and Katie.